Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Word Count Wrestles - How you can trim the word count and not sacrifice content and plot

First Version (128 K words) that I sent to publishers
In 2011, I was convinced that I had written the definitive version of Love for Beginners. It weighed in at 128 thousand words. If the standard paper-back has an average of 250 words on each page, then my hefty tome translated as a 512 page tome. Definitely more of a 'tome' than a 'novel'. On a drizzly day in London, November 2011, I printed it out and it was like two phone books rammed together, complete with that gluey smell of piles of freshly printed paper. Putting it into a heavy-duty cushioned envelope, and hugging it to my chest, I scuttled down to the Kensington post office and sent it off to Paula Campbell at Poolbeg in Dublin, and some months later she got back to me with some feedback including that she thought it had, 'potential' and that she liked the main character. But she didn't shirk from saying that, 'it's way too long and needs to be cut', which echoed my own criticisms of the book, but did not agree with one reader who had been reading the book as I had written it, and had wanted, 'more, more! MORE! You must write more about the time Anna* meets her boyfriend's mother!' *protagonist

During the first half of 2012, it was time for the first major re-write that cut twenty thousand words off, which made it 428 pages.  I had cut away some heavy scenes, such as the time Anna's mother, who has the personality of a snowman, visited her. Then, I went to a talk given by agent Juliet Pickering of A P Watt, who said that most standard paperbacks are 90 thousand words. There was still a bit of pruning left to do - and yet I knew that if I deleted anymore parts such as when Anna is speed-dating, that the book would be lacking the authentic experience of Anna struggling to find love in a cold climate.

But one technique is to 'sweat the fat' - and make your book thinner but still the same person.  Here's how it's done: for example if you have a draft that is 107 thousand words/428 pages, then if you take out 4 unnecessary words from each page, that means you have reduced the word count by 1,712 words and it is now closer to 105 thousand words. 

Instead of taking four, if you remove 8 fatty 'phatic'/irrelevant words, you are 'sweating' close to 3,500 words.  Now, if you take out 10 words, you can make it lose blubber of 4,280 words and you will have a draft over 102 thousand words.

This is a tedious approach to editing, but it's less painful than the surgical way of copying 500 words and clicking, 'cut'. 

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